" ('light of fireflies
') is a Japanese folk song
sung to the music
of the Scottish
folk song "Auld Lang Syne
The lyrics of "Hotaru no Hikari" are vastly different from those of "Auld Lang Syne." Still, "Hotaru no Hikari" is often sung on New Year's Eve. However, in Japan, the song is most associated with graduation ceremonies, at the conclusions of which it is invariably sung. More recently, instrumental versions of "Hotaru no Hikari" have been broadcast at supermarkets and pachinko parlors at closing time. When customers start hearing this song over the PA system, it is time for them to leave.
Since its composition in the late nineteenth century, "Hotaru no Hikari" has become an integral part of Japanese culture. In fact, most Japanese do not realize that the music originated outside of their country. Many who hear the song playing overseas mistakenly believe that they are hearing a Japanese song.
"Hotaru no Hikari" made its first appearance in Shuuji Izawa's "Summary of Singing" in 1881. Later it was contained in the first edition of "Elementary School Songbook" as "Hotaru." The music, of course, is by the Scottish poet Robert Burns. The usage of the pentatonic scale (common in both Japanese and Scottish music) in "Auld Lang Syne" made it easy for the Japanese to adapt the music. It is often said that the composer of the Japanese lyrics is unknown. However, according to many sources, the composer is most likely Chikai Inagaki, a teacher in the Tokyo Instructor's School (now the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music).
The lyrics to the original version of "Hotaru no Hikari" are shown below. I've translated them as literally as possible while making sure that it makes sense in English. Still, much gets lost in the process. I've completely ignored any poetic considerations. I'm sure that someone else can do a better job at this.
hotaru no hikari, mado no yuki. Light of fireflies, snow by the window,
fumi yomu tsukihi, kasane tsutsu. Many suns and moons spent reading
itsushika toshi mo, sugi no towo. Years have gone by without notice
aketezo kesa ha, wakare yuku. Day has dawned; this morning, we part.
tomaru mo yuku mo, kagiri tote, Stay or leave, either an end
katami ni omofu1, chiyorozu no, Think as mementos; so many
kokoro no hashi wo, hitokoto ni, Corners of my heart, in one word
sakiku to bakari, utafu2 nari. Sing for peace
tsukushi no kiwami, michi no oku, Far reaches of Kyushu3, far along roads
umi yama tohoku4, hedatsu tomo, Though separated by seas and mountains
sono magogoro ha, hedate naku. Its sincere heart is not.
hitotsu ni tsukuse, kuni no tame. Serve single-mindedly for our country.
chishima no oku mo, okinawa mo, From the ends of Chishima5 to Okinawa6,
yashima no uchi no, mamori nari. All part of Japan.
itaran kuni ni, isaoshiku. Contribute to our great country.
tsutomeyo wagase, tsutsuganaku. I'll faithfully devote my life.
According to folklore
, students used light of fireflies and the reflection of moonlight on snow
as light sources when they wanted to study at night. Therefore, the first verse
is used to indicate the diligence
of the graduating students.
Among the four verses, the second verse is most in the sprit of "Auld Lang Syne." As in the lyrics to that song, the words in the second verse do not make a clear distinction between death and simple parting.
The lyrics turns decidedly nationalistic in third verse. This may be the reason why the third and fourth verses are not sung anymore. Nationalism has been discouraged in Japanese society since the end of World War II, when American military forces occupied the country.
My interpretation is that "Hotaru no Hikari" was sang by young men who were being sent off to war upon graduating from high school. The time of composition (around 1880) would indicate that this war could be the Sino-Japanese War.
I'll conclude with a discussion of the lyrics itself. Each line of the song is a 7-syllable segment followed by a 5-syllable segment. A 7/5 scheme, of course, is common in Japanese poetry. To make the syllables fit the music, one syllable from each segment is elongated.
1 Archaic use of 'fu' instead of 'u.'
3 Kyusu is the southernmost of the four main islands of Japan.
4 Similar to 1 & 2. This time 'ho' instead of 'o.'
5 "Chishima Rettou" is the Japanese name for the Kuril Islands. They are the (disputed) northernmost islands in Japan.
6 Okinawa is the chain of the southernmost islands in Japan.